Indonesia after Suharto

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

The Year of Living Dangerously:
Indonesia after Suharto
17,000 Islands, 300 Ethnic Groups, 250 Languages
by Borgna Brunner

This article was posted on June 7, 1999.

Adlinda da Silva
Relatives of pro-independence supporter Adlinda da Silva, 24, grieve during his funeral in Dili, East Timor, on Aug. 27, 1999. Da Silva was shot during clashes that killed six people. (Source/AP)
With 17,670 islands, Indonesia is the world's largest archipelago, stretching from Southeast Asia to Australia in a 3,500-mile crescent.

The fourth most populous country in the world, it is also one of the most culturally diverse, encompassing Javanese Muslims, Portuguese-speaking Christians, Balinese Hindus, and animist tribespeople from Borneo and New Guinea. Three hundred different ethnic groups inhabit the islands and while the official language, Bahasa Indonesia, is prevalent almost everywhere, 250 other distinct languages are also spoken.

Suharto's Departure Brings Freedom and Chaos

The ethnic, religious, and political tensions kept in check during former President Suharto's 32 years of authoritarian rule ruptured in the months following his downfall in May 1998. The Indonesian ideal, "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika" ("Unity in Diversity") unraveled as the government collapsed.


Indonesia has been compared to the former Yugoslavia, with Suharto as the country's Tito. Once the country was no longer held together by a strong leader, its forced cohesion began to splinter.

Rioting and skirmishes have increased in the past year, some of them the expression of a general, ill-defined desire for "reformasi" directed at the government and the country's worsening poverty. But in a number of troubled regions around the archipelago, the violence has focused on long-simmering ethnic animosities and religious bigotry.

East Timor

East Timor was invaded in 1975 by Indonesia and annexed the following year. A separatist movement immediately sprang up. Unlike most of Indonesia, which had been a Dutch colony, East Timor had been governed by the Portuguese for 400 years. While 90% of Indonesians are Muslim, the East Timorese are primarily Roman Catholic.

The Indonesian occupation led to widespread repression and the deaths of an estimated 200,000 Timorese, earning Indonesia a global reputation for human rights abuses. Indonesia's record was further tarnished when two East Timorese activists, Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and José Ramos-Horta, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996—until the peace prize announcement this small, remote island province was virtually unknown to the world at large.

In February 1999 President B. J. Habibie unexpectedly announced that he was willing to hold a referendum on East Timorese independence, reversing 25 years of Indonesian intransigence. Despite the good news for Timorese nationalists, the sudden Indonesian about-face exacerbated the fighting between separatist guerrillas and the paramilitary forces who were against Indonesia's withdrawal. And although the Indonesian government professed self-determination for East Timor, at the same time it continued to arm and trained the very paramilitary forces who are fighting against independence.

As the referendum on self-rule drew nearer, fighting between separatist guerrillas and paramilitary forces intensified, and the U.N.-sponsored referendum had to be rescheduled twice because of the violence. On Aug. 30, 1999, 78.5% of the population voted to secede from Indonesia. In the days following the referendum, pro-Indonesian militias and Indonesian soldiers retaliated by razing towns, slaughtering civilians, and forcing a third of the population out of the province.

Despite repeated assurances that Indonesia would restore order, Habibie and the powerful head of the military, Gen. Wiranto, were either unwilling or unable to stop the bloodbath. Another less-than-innocent bystander was the U.N.: after encouraging the populace to exercise their rights by participating in a free and democratic election, it failed to make provisions for protecting them from the inevitably brutal aftermath.

Only after enormous international pressure did Indonesia finally allow a hastily assembled peacekeeping force into East Timor on Sept. 12. Australia, Indonesia's neighbor, led the peacekeepers. In Dec. 1999, the U.N. apologized for not forseeing and preventing the violence after the referendum. The U.N. will oversee East Timor's transition to nationhood, which is expected to take two or three years.
Source: CIA
Indonesian troublespots, from West to East:
Aceh, West Kalimantan, East Timor, the Molluccas, and Irian Jaya.


Aceh (pronounced AH-chay), a strongly conservative Muslim province of 4.5 million people on the northern tip of Sumatra, has waged a low-grade battle for secession over the past 15 years. Nine years of martial law served only to radicalize the movement. Suharto's departure further stirred up secessionist passions, as did East Timor's bloody but successful referendum on independence.

Human rights groups report that the Indonesian military is responsible for the deaths of more than 5,000 Acehnese since 1989. Around 2,000 Acehnese died last year during a special military operation to crush the escalating rebellion.

Indonesia's new president, Abdurrahman Wahid, has taken a far more moderate stance toward Aceh than his predecessors. Wahid rejected the military's demand to once again impose martial law on Aceh and has indicated his willingness to hold a referendum on Aceh—but a referendum concerning greater autonomy, not independence. Wahid is receptive to the idea of Aceh living according to Islamic rather than civil law, a popular concept in this highly conservative Muslim province. But Aceh is rich in oil and gas, and Indonesia has no intention of giving it up.

Molucca Islands

Formerly called the Spice Islands, the Moluccas—once highly valued for their nutmeg and cloves—were the islands Columbus had hoped to reach when he instead found himself in the Americas.

Settled at various times by the Portuguese, English, and Dutch, the islands are predominantly Christian. The Moluccas, whose capital is Ambon, was formerly considered to be a model of religious tolerance. But since the beginning of 1999, the Moluccas have been engulfed in violent sectarian riots. Christians wearing red headbands and Muslims wearing white have engaged in brutal skirmishes with spears, machetes, and axes. More than 2,500 have been killed since the end of 1998. Tens of thousands of residents have fled the province.

West Kalimantan, Borneo

Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, has been the scene of grisly bloodshed, with the indigenous Dayak tribespeople attacking the immigrant Madurese population. In many instances, the Dayaks have severed the heads of Madurese and impaled them on posts—a traditional, centuries-old war ritual.

As part of the Indonesian resettlement program to shift people from the overpopulated central islands to the less inhabited portions of the archipelago, the government resettled many inhabitants of the tiny island of Madura. The mix of cultures on Borneo was disastrous. The Madurese have been fiercely resented for being successful and aggressive trades people, and they have been attacked at different times in the past by the impoverished Dayaks. Most of the Madurese on Borneo—about 2% of its population—have now fled.

Irian Jaya, New Guinea

Irian Jaya, the Indonesian portion of New Guinea, was annexed by Indonesia in the 1960s. Two thousand miles southeast of Java, the remote province of Irian Jaya could not be more different.

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The largest and least developed of Indonesia's provinces, it is populated by Melanesian tribespeople whose traditions have changed little over centuries. Until recent decades, few outsiders other than missionaries had penetrated its jungles, and several of the tribes still practiced cannibalism.

Irian Jaya was at one point designated—along with Aceh and East Timor—as a "military operation zone" because of separatist insurgencies, the strongest of which is the Free West Papua independence movement. Not only have Irian Jayan rebels clashed with government troops, accusing Jakarta of exploiting its rich natural resources, but tension has developed between local people and migrants from other areas, transplanted under Indonesia's ill-conceived resettlement program. Part of the government's promotion of "Unity in Diversity," the forced mixture of strikingly different cultures throughout the archipelago has only served to underscore their differences. President Wahid made an important overture to Irian Jaya by choosing to celebrate the millennium on this neglected Indonesian province. He promised the province greater freedom of expression but emphatically ruled out independence. In a well-received gesture Wahid changed the region's name to Papua, its indigenous name. Despite Wahid's efforts to placate the province, activists declared West Papua independent on June 4, 2000. Unlike the case of East Timor, there is virtually no international support for independence for West Papua.

The Chinese

In 1998, there were an estimated 8 million ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, including some families that have lived there for centuries. Although they comprise roughly four percent of the population, the Chinese account for a staggering 70 percent of Indonesia's private economic activity.

Often by building trade relationships with other Chinese communities in South East Asia, the Chinese merchants prospered. In 1870, the Dutch banned Chinese from owning land, forcing Chinese farmers into the professions or business, including money lending, and the opium trade. Chinese also joined the government, as clerks, tax collectors, and administrators, prompting some ethnic Indonesians to call them collaborators with the Dutch.

Partly in response to prejudice, many Chinese organized themselves into secret societies, created private armies, and otherwise maintained an insular existence, reinforcing ethnic divisions.

Chinese have periodically been targets of mob violence. Some 100,000 Chinese were expelled from the country in 1959, while thousands of Chinese were attacked and many killed during the 1965–1966 bloodbath that followed the fall of President Sukarno. Many Chinese were accused of being Communists and with maintaining secret ties to the mainland. Anti-Chinese rioting also occurred in 1973 and 1980.

Under Suharto, Chinese were also forbidden from careers in state-sponsored academia, serving in the military, and the civil service. They were forced to carry identity cards and the use of Chinese characters and celebrations, such as the Chinese New Year, were banned.

During the violent upheavals that lead to Suharto's downfall in May 1998, some 1,200 Chinese were believed killed. Thousands of businesses were looted, prompting tens of thousands of Chinese fled overseas. In addition, billions of dollars was transferred out of the country.

The Indonesian government has since urged the Chinese to return and reopen businesses as a way of improving the languishing economy. In 2000, Chinese were allowed to openly celebrate the Chinese New Year for the first time in years, as Wahid has begun repealing anti-Chinese legislation.

Slouching Toward Democracy

Given the enormous advances Indonesia has made in a little more than a year since Suharto’s reign ended—it now has a new, democratically elected president, a multiparty system, and a free press; dissidents have been released from jail, and long-suffering East Timor has been given its freedom—it is hoped that the long road to democracy can cease to be such a bloody one.

Some analysts have blamed the increase in ethnic violence on forces loyal to President Suharto. They claim Suharto's allies in the military wanted to stop the 1999 elections and promote instability Ill and under house arrest, Suharto faces a corruption probe amid allegations that he amassed a multi-billion dollar fortune while in office.

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